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Don't rage against the machine

04 November 2010

Outrage over the slaughter of male chicks and drake ducklings in UK hatcheries is understandable. But activists shouldn’t waste energy by targeting farmers. They should rather channel their rage by helping to develop pre-hatch technology, which is the only viable solution.

Last year in East Anglia I visited a hatchery which provides ducks’ eggs to retailers, and discovered something I suspect would make many people queasy or at least a little uneasy.

According to the farmers to whom I spoke there is simply no space to deal with the thousands of drake ducklings that hatch on their farm. The point of having a hatchery is to produce female ducks which can lay more eggs. The vast majority of drakes are surplus to requirements.

Unfortunately, as a co-owner of the business admitted to me, there is nothing to do after sexing the birds other than dispose of the males as quickly and humanely as possible. She told me this was a source of great distress for her.

The manner of disposal isn’t designed to quell the distress either. A mincing machine – which does what it says on the tin – is all that’s required to kill the ducklings. The waste is taken off the farm by a third party.

The co-owner explained gassing was originally used as a means of killing the ducklings but on investigation they discovered the mincing method – widely used in the US – was more humane. There was no killing being done when I visited the farm but the gory evidence of previous slaughter was on display on the blades of the mincer.

My immediate instinct was a reflection of what I’m sure most people would think: what a terrible, pointless waste of life. The males live only long enough to be sexed before it’s all over in a heartbeat.

But once the co-owner explained why they have to do it and of the prohibitive cost of not doing it, I found myself understanding why it happens, even if I didn’t fully agree with the way it happens.

This problem can be resolved only by using the potential of science and technology. The only reason the ducklings are killed after they’ve hatched is because they can’t be sexed inside the shell. If they could be, imagine the savings which would be made, as well as the pr disasters which would be averted.

The reality of these pr disasters was realised when the Telegraph reported on the ‘millions of male chicks… killed every year by the egg industry’. The paper was reporting on alleged undercover footage of a UK hatchery, filmed by vegetarian organisation Viva!

In the footage, the chicks are dropped onto a conveyor belt where they are sorted by sex. The males are thrown alive into electronic mincers or instantly gassed to death. According to the report, 30-40 million animals a year are sent to their deaths in this way.

Both processes are, however, legal and approved by the Humane Slaughter Association and the RSPCA. The truth is, until new technology is found, nothing will change. Fiery animal rights activists may be on the ‘right’ side but it is investment in technology rather than rage that will yield results.

The Economist recently ran an article depicting possible hatcheries of the future. ‘’A conveyor belt moves the eggs along, gently jostling them until their allantoic sacs point upright. They then pass beneath an array of needles, which draw fluid from each. That done, they’re sorted into bar-coded trays.

‘’Two hours later, once the samples have been analysed and the sex of each egg determined, they’re returned to a sorter and divided by sex. The unfortunate male embryos then end up as pet food while the females go on to their lives as egg-mothers.’’

If this scenario became a widespread reality it would spell the end of the road for those whose job is sexing chicks and ducklings. Their fate would be sending out a job application for another line of work. In return, millions of fluffy yellow chicks wouldn’t have to hatch only to be thrown in a mincer.

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